I like this story. I liked writing it, editing it, and thinking about it. All it is, is a concept. Sure, I got the concept from someone else originally (The nightmare box, by Chuck Palahniuk), but after it had simmered in the back of my mind for long enough it became something totally different, and now it is my own. If you read it properly, the ending should not confuse you too much. Just think about it.
Room for Thought
Henry stared into the room, trying to find something interesting, or at least different about it. But there wasn’t anything, really. In fact it seemed to him the most unremarkable room he’d ever come across.
Actually, with that solid concrete door, it was more a vault then a room, but what difference did that make – there was nothing in it. It was just a mouldy grey box with the dimensions of a small prison cell.
‘I guess it smells pretty bad,’ he said.
‘Don’t you notice anything interesting about it?’ Stan nudged him. ‘You don’t find anything strange about this room that makes it different from every other mental asylum or prison ever?’
‘How can I? There’s nothing in it.’
‘Duh. That’s the difference. There’s nothing in it. No bed, no toilet, no window. Bet you’d be pretty hard pressed to find a prison that harsh, friend.’
‘Oh, right.’ He resisted the urge to slap his forehead. ‘Why is that, anyway? I mean I know they were cruel against the crazies back in the day, but a place like this would…
‘What? Drive someone crazy?’ Stan laughed.
Henry cringed at the sound of his friend’s laughter. He didn’t like how it echoed down the hallway and mingled with the stale wind that had somehow made it three stories underground. If it wasn’t for the huge crumbling holes in the floors and ceilings of this place, they probably wouldn’t be able to see at all.
‘Know what else is missing?’ said Stan, taking a thin black torch from his pocket. He shone it into the room.
Henry squinted and looked around. The small light was more than enough to illuminate the little room but as far as he could see there was nothing else strange. He shook his head.
‘Yeah, took me a long time to get it as well. Last time I came here I just sat out here in the hall, just staring in there and thinking. Like, in awe, you know? At first I was like you, just thinking how ordinary it was, but the more I looked, the more I realised what was missing. See the walls? Totally smooth. Like they were made and then just left there for years and years.’
‘That’s not what happened?’ Henry said.
‘No. Think about it, Henry. If you were trapped in a tiny room like this, day in, day out, for years on end, you really think you wouldn’t leave a mark? You wouldn’t try to tally the days or carve messages in the cement?’
‘With what? Your fingernails?’
‘Anything, man. Fingernails, teeth, bone. These guys were crazy to begin with, how nuts are they going to be after a few months in here? Tell you what, I’d do anything to keep from being bored in here. I’d gouge my own eyes out and paint the walls with blood.’
Henry rolled his eyes. ‘I think you’re being a little melodramatic there, Stan.’
‘Whatever, I just think its weird is all. Other asylums I’ve been to had similar rooms to this, most of ‘em with at least a toilet, and their walls were covered in weird scratches and graffiti and whatnot.’
Henry shrugged, but he knew it was true. Now he thought of it, this room was quite different to anything else he’d seen.
‘So what’s the story, then?’ Henry said. ‘Why did you pull me all the way out here to a tiny rock to show me an empty room?’
Stan grinned and flicked off his torch. ‘Because, buddy. It’s the real deal. It’s the haunted room you’ve been looking for your whole life. Don’t look at me like that. I know what the deal is. You say your little ghost hunting hobby is just a good excuse to travel but I see how amped up you get whenever we find something new, and I see the disappointment in your eyes when we find out it’s a hoax or whatever.’
Henry snorted. ‘Right.’
‘Right. Hey I’m not teasing you. I feel the same man. Hell, why do you think I always come with you to these wacky places. It sure ain’t for the good company.’ He winked and then laughed. Henry cringed again.
‘No, seriously, though. I’m like you, I mean I never really believe, you know? Come on, I’m not stupid. But I always kind of hope. Remember when we were in castle… Damn, I forget the name, the one up in Scotland, where the ghost of some woman was meant to wake you up screaming in the middle of the night? Tell me I’m not the only one who was hoping to hear a wailfest.’
Henry smiled despite himself. ‘I know, Stan, but it’s kid stuff. What are you talking about, the real deal? Why’s it haunted, Stan? Someone get murdered? Tortured? Dismembered?’ He laughed, but Stan was dead serious.
‘Look, Henry, I’ve come to this place plenty of times. You know, when I was gathering information, which by the way is really hard to get – you know the locals in the town over there would rather die than mention it. I practically had to live there before I found out about it. Anyway, like I say, I’ve been coming here a lot. But you know what? I’ve never stepped inside that room.’
‘What?’ That did seem a little odd. Stan never considered a legend debunked unless he’d gone all the way. He’d said ‘Bloody Mary’, about a thousand times in a thousand different mirrors, he’d lain in bathtubs where bodies were butchered. It wasn’t enough for him to just look, Stan always had to do.
‘I know, seems weird, right?’ he went on. ‘But the stories give me the willies man. You know why? Because they’re backed up. It’s not hearsay. Well actually, a lot of it is, but the hearsay is hard to get hold of. I mean, usually people are falling over themselves trying to tell you their little ghost story, right? Everyone’s got a dead grandmother that shows up in their basement or a friend who really swears they saw a headless guy in their bedroom once. But not these people.
‘Alright, so they’re superstitious. I’m sure most of them sincerely believe whatever was supposed to have happened in here, that doesn’t really prove anything.’
Stan put a hand up, nodding. ‘I know, I know,’ he said. ‘So let me get to the hard facts. The real evidence, all researched and compiled by yours truly.’
Henry was half tempted to jump into the room right then and put an end to the charade. But what kind of a friend would that make him?
‘This room here has more victims than anyone knows about. Here’s the kicker, though. It’s the actual room itself that seems to do it. As in, no murders, no tortures, no violence of any kind.’
‘You’re losing me, Stan. Make with the data.’
‘Alright, alright. I won’t bore you with the history of the asylum itself; it’s not on any Indian burial ground or anything, relax. So guy number one. The original first inmate, thrown into this very room on account of being totally nuts. Extremely violent kind of nuts, by the way. Just as likely to bite your face off as look at you. Attacked everything he saw, including the people that fed him. He goes in here, and stays here for about a hundred years.’
‘That’s right. Whenever they had cause to chuck anyone else in there, they just did it. It wasn’t often, but if you were mad enough, you’d end up in here. They didn’t feed them or anything, so I guess you’d die pretty quick. It was just an easy way to get rid of them without outright murdering them. Out of sight, out of mind. Gotta love the old days, huh?’
‘That’s pretty horrible, Stan.’
‘It is indeed. This place closed down about thirty years after guy number one, though, and then it was just left to rot for seventy, after which some folks came to clean the place up. All that was left in here was dusty bone and a really bad smell.’
‘That’s for sure.’
‘Now we get to the juicy part. Four guys were employed to clean this particular room. Within a year, three of them had committed suicide and one had gone absolutely insane.’
Henry laughed, a bit louder than he intended. ‘Okay. You got the records of that?’
He waited for Stan to shuffle his feet and mention something about not managing to get access, but instead he reached into his big black bag and came out with a scruffy looking yellow file. ‘All in here, buddy,’ he said. ‘They were part of a clean-up project from town, so all their families still live there. These are transcripts of conversations I had with them. Spine chilling stuff, that, but we’ll go through it later. And that last guy? Still alive, up in Dorman County asylum. Won’t get much out of him though.’
‘Keep going, Stan.’
He flashed a grin. ‘Oh I will. Guy number… we’ll say six, but it’s probably more like twenty six. He was a local, so he knew all about it. Him and a bunch of daredevil friends came up here about five years ago. He was doing a paper on the old-school treatments for insanity, figured it might be fun to come down and scare his buddies. Well, he sure scared ‘em alright.
According to all of them, who by the way told the exact same story, he took three steps into the middle of the room and then froze. He stopped moving and just stood there. When they called his name he turned around. They told him to come back and he did, and then he just stood out here in the hallway and stared at the wall. After that you couldn’t get a word out of him. He sort of followed basic commands at first, like a robot, but by the time they’d all boated back to the mainland he was totally gone. He just sat and stared at nothing. They thought he was crying but it turned out his eyes were watering because he wasn’t blinking anymore.’
‘Ah, huh. And where is he now?’
‘Dead,’ Stan said. ‘Forgot to eat, eventually forgot to breathe, and four years later his parents couldn’t stand it anymore and told the hospital to take him off the machines.’
‘It ain’t over, friend. Guy number seven slash twenty-seven. This guy was not a local, exactly, but he lived in Dorman County, so he still got wind of the place. He also happened to be an acquaintance of mine. Okay, don’t give me that look! I’m not saying we were best friends or anything. In all honesty, I had like two conversations with him. I ran into him and found out he went to my college. I was telling him about my – our – little hobby and he started unloading about this tiny island near the coast no one was supposed to know about, and all these little legends I’ve been telling you. Which, as I’ve been discovering, are not legends.’
‘Uh, huh. And now he’s…’
‘You guessed it. He told me himself, just before he went. In fact, he invited me to come out with him. I would have gone, too, only I thought to myself, if I came to a place like this without you, you’d never forgive me.’
‘You just told me you’ve already been here.’
‘I know, but it’s different. Before, it was just a story he told me. Then he actually went.’
He hesitated. ‘I… did see him again. Here, as it happens. I’d come down here to see for myself. After spending forever in town figuring things out for myself. He would have arrived here about a few days before me. I know that partly because of when he told me he was planning on going and partly… because of the state of him when I got here.’
Henry waited, not trusting himself to say anything.
At length, Stan said: ‘He was about dead when I saw him. I didn’t even recognize him, even though he was staring right at me. He was still standing – that’s something. I tried calling to him but he didn’t come. It was too late. His knees were shaking a little, though they weren’t supporting much weight by then. He looked like a bundle of broomsticks in a sack. His eyes were almost totally covered in dust and dirt.’
‘I broke off a big tree branch from outside and used it to hook under his arm. I was too scared to come in myself, see? I mean, would you?’
Henry didn’t answer. He saw, to his shock, that Stan was shaking, almost too slightly to notice.
‘He was still breathing when I pulled him out, but by the time I got him all the way back to town he wasn’t breathing anymore.’
Stan shook his head and flashed a grin. ‘Sorry, buddy. Being dramatic, huh? Didn’t even know the guy, really. Only, I wasn’t expecting it. It’s like I said: you don’t expect this stuff to be real. But this is it, man! The real deal. That’s why I brought you here. That’s why I kept coming here. Just in awe. I threw a rat in there the other day, and the same thing happened. Insects, lizards, people, it doesn’t matter. Anything alive just… I don’t know. It’s like it sucks their souls out or something.’
He took a minute to catch his breath, and stared at Henry with earnest eyes, neither of them saying a word. Then, unable to stop himself any longer, Henry burst out laughing. He put a hand on Stan’s shoulder to support himself.
‘Wow, Stan,’ he said, wiping tears from his eyes. ‘I didn’t think you could do it.’
‘Seriously? Oscar material. I mean it was just… You’ve never gone to the effort before, you know? I really appreciate it. Look at this! I’ve got goose bumps!’
Stan was looking halfway between bemused and worried. ‘Henry, I’m serious, man. I’m not kidding. You want to go up to the morgue? I’ll show you his body.’
‘I’m sure you will. I’m sure you’d take me all the way up to Dorman County before you give in. Then I won’t hear the end of it, about how you made me too damn chicken to walk in a little room. Stan the storyteller, right?’
Now he was looking almost genuinely scared. He was good, Henry thought. He’d never realised how good he was.
He took a step towards the room and suddenly Stan was gripping him tightly. All the humour was gone from his face and only fear remained.
‘Don’t do it, Henry, please. Let’s go, I’m sick of this. I’ll buy you a drink if you leave with me now. I’ll buy you ten drinks. Just… please, man.’
Henry laughed again. He was scared alright. The temptation to just go with it was immense but… was it really worth the verbal abuse that was sure to rain down on him afterward? Besides, he’d never forgive himself.
Henry jerked free and took two long strides into the middle of the room. He spun a small circle and stopped facing the doorway. Stan stared back at him from the threshold, white with terror.
‘See?’ Henry said. ‘Nothing wrong.’
Stan’s face changed. The fear disappeared and was replaced by… what was that? Pure evil. Stan stepped back, grabbed the heavy concrete door and slammed it shut. The sound in the small space was almost deafening. Henry’s heartbeat must have doubled in the space of seconds, but he stayed where he was.
‘I’m not afraid, Stan!’ he shouted, trying to forget that strange look he’d seen on his friend’s face a moment before. There was no answer.
‘It was good, buddy, don’t get me wrong. Finely executed in every sense. You got me good and proper. Drinks on me.’
No answer. Ass, Henry thought. He just has to drag it out, doesn’t he?
After a minute, he went up to the door and felt around for some kind of handle. Of course, there wasn’t one. It was so neatly fit that not even a crack of light from the hallway showed through. He banged on the smooth cement with an open hand. ‘Stan!’ he shouted. He pressed his ear to the door and listened. There was no reply.
An hour later, there was still no reply, and Henry was sitting in the far corner, wondering when his eyes were going to get used to the dark, and more importantly, when Stan was going to give up on this goddamned sick prank.
Twelve hours later, his fingernails were ripped and bleeding, he was sweating all over and the heat was beginning to get to him. The air was getting thicker, too. Pretty soon it was going to have the consistency of honey oozing into his lungs.
A day later, there wasn’t much of the original Henry left at all.
Stan stared at his friend in the middle of the room, frozen in place. His mind was almost numb with fear. What have I done? He thought. But there was nothing he could do about that, now.
Henry was still standing in the middle of the room with that stupid grin on his face. His hands flopped back down to his sides and hung there.
See, nothing wrong. But there was. Oh, there was plenty wrong, Stan thought. The glint in his eyes was disappearing fast, as though something was being pushed across them. His pupils dilated like pools of ink. His grin began to droop and his mouth fell open. His shoulders slumped.
Stan stared back at his old friend and began to cry despite himself. He slid down against the stone wall behind him and stayed there with his hands over his eyes for a long time.
When he couldn’t take it anymore, he headed outside and went to get his tree branch.